The Ritual of Renewal

Today I started bleeding. This monthly rite of womanhood is a reminder of the flow of life. Of time passing, yet always returning to the origin. A reminder of where things begin. A breath. A break. A place I am invited to each month. 

I know that many women my age want to be rid of this. If they have chosen to be done with childbearing, they feel ready to also be done with the bleeding. To them, menopause will be a release, a freedom. Freedom from the fear and worry of pregnancy; freedom from the inconvenience of bleeding.

I wonder if I am alone in viewing this monthly ritual as freedom itself. It is this time of the month when I feel that my body is mine and mine alone. No matter how empowered, how informed, and how self-confident I am, I still struggle with those past voices in my head and the training I was given by my culture. The history of my patriarchal society told me that my body belongs to someone else. The story I was given was that in marriage my husband possesses me and in motherhood my children rely on me to be self-sacrificing. I pour myself out for others and there is guilt, a burden that I carry anytime I say “no.” Except when I am bleeding. When I am bleeding I know that my body is mine and mine alone. When I am bleeding there is no guilt. I allow myself permission to make space within myself for me. I allow myself the luxury of boundaries around my body. I say no to sex and feel no guilt. I more readily tell my children that I need space and time for myself. What I sometimes label as grumpiness is really my body reminding me that I exist. 

Day one of a woman’s cycle the body stops the process of creating space for the other. Before that moment, it has been preparing gifts, sacrificing of itself to provide for another. It has quite literally created a space within me for someone else. On day one the focus shifts to the body itself. The lining of the uterus is shed, the space that was created to receive life is released and the body heals itself to prepare to do the process all over again. 

Six times, possibly seven, that space my body created received a life. My womb began the process of pouring into another human being. Once, possibly twice, that life was lost within days to miscarriage. And five times I had the privilege of joining in the creative act of God. My heart beat not just for me, but for another. The space that was prepared was filled and grew with the life of a child. Five times I labored, gave myself to the painful act of releasing that life into the world, watching it separate from myself to become a separate being. 

And every month as my body goes through the process of the preparation for life, I am reminded of the strength of being a woman. I am reminded that we give, over and over again to others. That we pour of ourselves, give gifts, create, and serve those around us. Life giving birth to life. All of this beauty, all of this sacrifice, all of this joy, all of this pain. In the rhythm of the menstrual cycle, all of it is revealed, over and over again. Our capacity, our sacrifice, our strength and our pain.

Day one. Day one, we release it. Our focus turns inward. When I bleed, I belong not to my husband or to my children, but to myself. When I bleed I am reminded that in order to sustain my ability to give to others, I must also give to myself. I do not live in a culture that recognizes this externally. Sometimes I wish I did. Not in a shameful way, but in an empowered way. I wish we as women had the courage to step aside, retreat and reconnect with ourselves, our shared womanhood, and our need to be filled. So that when we step back into the lives of those we love, we can give freely, fully, without restraint. So that when we give, it is not because we have been told to give, but because we know our own capacity to give. So that when we pour ourselves out, we do not worry about being emptied, because we know that each month the time will come again when we will be filled, because we choose to love ourselves as much as the other. I wish that this monthly rite and ritual would free us. Free us to love. Free us to give. Free us to know who we are, so that we can enter the lives of others without losing ourselves.lifegiving

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The Swirling Storm in my Head.

swirlingmindI walked to the bus stop this morning and felt that suddenly I could breathe again. The last few days have been HOT. Heat indexes in the 100’s and humidity that leaves you dripping and struggling to breathe. But this morning the temperature finally broke a little bit. It’s still hot, but it was raining just a tiny bit and cloudy. It was as if the weather had been holding in stress and emotions until something broke and she softly cried this morning as she released a bit of the tension she’s been holding.

I feel like my mood has mirrored the same transition these last two weeks. I jumped in to summer head first. You would have thought I would have learned from last year’s experience that I cannot be superwoman, at least not for very long. But somehow when all my kids are home, instead of settling into a more relaxed outlook on life, I find myself trying to do everything. I will feed everyone! I will keep the house clean! I will spend quality time with each kid! I can do this!

Maybe it is because I know that summer is hard. I go into it full of energy, pouring myself in because I know that it will take all of me to get through it. This summer has been better than last summer. Last summer, John’s depression was so heavy that I could feel it when I walked into a room where he was. Last summer, my purpose in doing everything was to try to remove some of the burden from him. Last summer, I crashed. All I accomplished was to make myself sick.

So, I know that I need to take it easy. Do only what is reasonable and choose those things that I need to let go of. I need to demand time for myself in each week. I need to find a rhythm. And I will.

But in the midst of this beginning of summer, in the midst of my struggle to find what I can and cannot handle, there was something else just under the surface, something I didn’t even realize was affecting me. As the heat built outside, the same tension built in me until I woke one morning at 4am. It started as a weird uncomfortable dream. One I don’t even remember the details of, but when I woke the emotions and feelings I’d been ignoring were all there, right in the front of my mind as if they had bubbled up from deep within me, finally breaking through to the surface.

It was, unfortunately, not one of the moments when suddenly all the pieces come together and the solution feels obvious. No, on the contrary, I am sitting in the middle of whirling and competing desires, needs, and circumstances and I have no idea how they are all going to fall into place. But it is time that I notice how much those swirling items are affecting me, how much attention they do need. I cannot ignore them, because there are other people in my family that also need to process this stuff and I need to be awake so we can do it together.

This will get really long if I try to explain all the moving parts, but they all have to do with the impending reality of our near future. In less than a year, we will no longer be a seminary family. John will graduate and we will move on to the next step in life. But, for not the first time in life, that next step feels very unclear. There feels like there are so many competing voices in this decision. There’s the desire of the bishop of Arkansas that we should return there. There’s the desire of my husband to not return to AR, based on some very strong practical and emotional reasons. There’s the aching heart of my teenage daughter who has tearfully requested that we stay here and let her finish her high school career with these friends she’s made here. There’s my job that I love, and also my dreams for the future. There’s the whole family’s strong desire to settle down, find a place that we can call home. There’s the uncertainty of the state of our country, an unsettledness that has us constantly discussing the possibility of moving outside these borders. There’s the very real practicality of making sure we generate an income large enough to support our family. As much as we don’t like making our decisions based on money, we do require a base level to survive and a slightly higher level to thrive.

And I’m in the middle of it all. I can see the value in each of the possible directions we head. I can see a place for myself and my dreams in each of them. None of them precludes my hopes for the future. I’m thankful for that. But each of the choices means something different for the mental and emotional health of one or more members of this family. Each choice may affect opportunities for the future for one or more members of this family. And I care about each member of this family. So much that it hurts.

My 4am awakening to the reality of the presence of all this surrounding me didn’t solve anything. But it started a conversation. And that conversation will lead to more conversations. And hopefully eventually a choice will be made. And I hope and pray that whatever that choice is will move us forward to a place of health and peace. I may feel helpless right now, but I do not feel hopeless.

Individual vs. Collective Hope

Last Sunday I sat in Christian formation and felt the familiar rise of emotion. I have been enjoying this class each week as it encourages me to think, and it hasn’t failed yet to rile me up. As we discuss different stories and themes from the Bible, usually the Old Testament, I am struck by how many different ways there are to understand certain things and how rather than floating on a boat of apathy in a peaceful sea of uncertainty (which is where I thought I still was in this process of faith shift), I find I have replaced many of my former beliefs with rather strong ones that are often in opposition to the ones I once held. This group gives me a chance to examine those, and to find ways to share them out loud in hopefully respectfully kind ways, while also learning to listen to competing viewpoints with a critical ear (not just critical to their side, but just as much so to mine). Still working on that.

Most of the time I just listen, it often takes a few hours or days for me to fully process the conversation we had and decide how I feel about it. And this Sunday, the emotion that rose in me was stronger and very different than that which I have been feeling. It was grief. Strong, undeniable grief. The kind that causes your face to flush and your breathing to rise as you fight the urge to burst into tears in front of a group of people you hardly know.

The theme we were discussing was the Exodus. What this central story from the Old Testament meant to the Israelites and what it can mean for us. Hope. Hope was the word that was coming out of the story. Hope that no matter how low we drop, how horrible the circumstances that surround us, we will come back up again. We will be delivered.

I listened as one person after another shared what that meant to them personally. And because one person specifically brought up something that had happened to his daughter when she was just an infant, and was sharing how he coped with and still copes with the permanent effects this had on her, my gut wrenched with pain. This conversation had suddenly veered too close to home. The words he shared were very similar to words that I have shared in the process of grieving the loss of my 7 month old daughter. They were words of searching, searching for purpose in the tragedy, for hope for himself in the midst of his daughter’s pain.

But, oddly I found myself resonating much more with another man who shared something that was rather different in focus. Instead of looking for purpose in his own story, he instead focuses on presence. God was there and is there in the midst of it. And for him, that was enough. Someone else tried to explain the purpose of pain in the world, or the reason for it, but the explanation was not enough for me. I’ve heard it before and it no longer made the sense I used to think it did. And then another woman shared a hope that went beyond herself and to her family, the hope she held that they would survive and thrive even if she were to die from the cancer that she had just been diagnosed with.

There was so much emotion writhing in my gut. I spoke once, and it was only to share the less than cheery fact that in the story of the Exodus, the people that were brought out of Egypt, were not the same people that entered the land of Canaan. A whole generation died in the wilderness, waiting for the promise they were given. The hope of the Jews is not an individual hope. It is a collective one. WE will be saved. WE will rise again. WE will gain our promised land.

Why was it that that one part of the story is the only one I felt compelled to comment on? Why did some of the hope that was shared in that circle Sunday morning sound so hollow to me, while other versions of it resonated? Why did the whole conversation leave me feeling so unsettled? It was as if there was nothing answered for me, but rather a stirring of the waters that left everything murky and dark and confusing.

As I talked it over with John Sunday evening, while the echo of the emotion still sounded in my shaky voice and the tears I hadn’t cried that morning wet my eyes with just a touch of sadness, I realized that I felt unsettled because there were no simple easy answers to the questions that pain and suffering stir up. The world does not appear to work in a purposefully ordered way. God does not appear to work in a purposefully ordered way. The only thing I could cling to was that an individual hope was not enough. Because too often an individual hope is proved false. What happens when 58 people’s lives are cut short by a senseless shooting in Las Vegas? Where is the hope for those people? What happens when someone continues to live in despair and pain even after crying out continually to God to save them? What does hope mean to them? What happens when a 7 month old baby girl dies for the inexplicable reason that her body was just not born as perfect as it should have been?

An individual hope focuses on ourselves. It looks for what happens to me. How can I find hope in the midst of the senseless violence? How can I go on after the death of my daughter? How many blessings do I have that others don’t? These aren’t entirely negative questions. It is normal for us to find the personal relevance within the questions. It is normal to look for purpose in the pain. I believe that we have to do that to a certain extent in order to survive.

But I also believe we are missing something much greater when we focus solely on an individual hope. In our US culture, an individualistic point of view is common and expected. Our faith has to do with the individual. Our salvation has to do with the individual. Our hope has to do with the individual. The majority of Christian faith that I have seen in the US tends to be rather hopeless rather than hopeful. We have given up on a world that does not appear to be getting any better and began to focus on a hope that only truly exists in the afterlife. Even there that hope is limited, limited only to those who somehow individually find their way to God. This is not the way that everyone has or does live. The Israelites hope was collective. I am not as well studied in this as my husband, but I believe that their identity as a nation was much more important than their individual identity. Why else would a story in which nearly everyone dies, still be a story of hope? Where a remnant remains, there is still hope. Hope that the nation, the community will survive.

This is a hope that is so much bigger than the individual. This is a hope that goes beyond one person. This is a hope that can look at senseless suffering and say, “Things look bleak. But I hope for a day when people live in a world where violence does not take lives. I hope for a world where all people are cared for. I hope for a world where peace is the rule of the day. I believe in the kingdom of God. I believe that it can and will exist.”

I find greater peace in this absolutely almost foolish hope than I do in the attempts to find purpose in the suffering. This hope for me goes beyond death, because I can hope that even if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, it can still happen in someone’s. And the weird crazy thing about this type of collective hope is that when enough of us believe it can be true, then it actually begins to hold the possibly that it will be.

Living with loneliness.

miriam_profileThis post might be a bit long, because I realized as I processed this a bit this week, that loneliness has been my traveling companion for quite a few years. It hasn’t always been the same, but it has been there. And I think it is that loneliness that inspires me to help people find their village. Because I long so much for one of my own. I’ve found it sometimes. And that knowledge of what it is like makes me long for it all the time.

Several years ago I lived in a large fairly new house with a very large back yard. My kids were about 9, 4 and 3. I was attempting to homeschool my oldest while also keeping two very active little boys occupied. I was feeding my family, hoping for a clean house, and also running a business. My days were full, but the people I interacted with all day long were my children. It took me awhile to realize that I was lonely. That what I was longing for was a community of people to live life with. People that weren’t all children begging me to meet their never ending needs all day long. I longed to do housework alongside someone else. I wanted to have adult conversations that went beyond the niceties. I wished for friends who would come into my messy life and be a part of it.

I wasn’t without friends, but it was becoming very clear to me that the American culture did not easily make room for deep and meaningful relationships. People just didn’t have time to step out of their own lives and into other people’s very often. Once I realized what I was longing for, I was able to see that it was something worth longing for. I believe people do live more fulfilled and contented lives when they have people that they are sharing them with.

During most of my mothering career I did participate in a mother’s group that helped to meet that need. There was one year that my small group within that group became to me a community unlike any I had ever known. It only happened once in that perfect “I can’t believe these people are all my friends” sort of way, but those friends I made then were a big part of my life. They were my village.

Shortly after that time, John and I moved out into the country, into an old farmhouse that someone was willing to rent to us. We were surrounded by land, which we loved. We started pursuing some of the things I had always longed to do. John built me a chicken coop and I mail ordered a box of fuzzy little chicks. We bought two perfectly adorable miniature goats and John and I worked together to fence in a portion of the field for them. I loved that house. I loved the things we were dreaming about. But it was even more lonely. It took nearly half an hour to get into town, so I didn’t go that often, saving my trips to consolidate my time.

But it was also in that house that for possibly the first time in my life I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning talking with my husband. It was during that time of our life that we started looking at the possibility of real adventures. We talked about mission work, and we started looking at possibilities, and then chose Germany as our desired destination. Life was purposeful and exciting and we were working together to make our dreams reality. My husband and I were making our own little village of sorts.

We moved back into town into a little tiny rental because we needed to be closer to meet with people and raise financial support. My contribution to our support raising endeavors felt very real and appreciated. We met with people several times a week and shared deep conversations. We realized how sad it was that it wasn’t until we were leaving that we actually had our first real conversations with friends that we’d had for years. It was a hard, weird, and exciting time. But it wasn’t particularly lonely.

Eventually the long awaited day of our flight came. We finished up packing all the possessions we hadn’t sold into our bags and headed across the ocean. I think I expected Germany to be lonely. I was 20 weeks pregnant, and not assigned to any specific job in the mission. I was leaving behind friends that I’d had for years. I was leaving behind a church I’d attended since I was a kid. There were definitely lonely times, but they were often interrupted by the unexpected kindness of a community that welcomed us with open arms. Like when I got the flu shortly after arriving and someone brought me soup and muffins and someone else took my son to and from kindergarten. And when I was in the hospital wishing my mom and family were there to help welcome our newborn son and we were visited by new friends who showed they truly cared.

And a few months into our stay I found a group of friends who are still the people that I tell everything to. A group of moms who all found themselves in very similar circumstances and all clung together sharing life and real deep conversations. I had found my village again and I was happy. We moved away from Germany a short while later as did many in that group then and in subsequent years. We find ourselves all over the place now, but we are still an online village. It isn’t the same, but it is something that I am thankful I have.

Ironically, my husband was entering a very lonely period in his life. He hadn’t realized how much he would miss the friends he’d made in recent years. How much he’d miss the interactions and their supportive conversations. He and I were growing even closer as I learned to be more honest and open with him, and as we learned to rely on each other for the community we needed. But I did not realize at the time the depth of the depression he had entered, the hopelessness he often felt, the weight of the questions he was asking.

When we came back to Arkansas I entered a period of loneliness that I wasn’t quite prepared for. I was returning to a place that was supposed to be home to me. I had friends and family there. But it wasn’t like everyone had left a Miriam sized hole waiting for me to step back into it. I felt like I had to force my way back into relationships. I know it wasn’t that people were purposefully leaving me out, but it didn’t feel as effortless as I had hoped. I was a different person who was starting to believe very differently than I had before, and it was hard to find where I fit into people’s lives. I was also very wary, waiting to see how each person would react to the new things I was learning and changing my mind on. Even if they accepted me and respected me in the midst of disagreement, it was hard to acknowledge that the majority of my friends did disagree with me. My therapist told me when I talked to her about my loneliness that self-discovery really is a very lonely process and that only when I was more sure of who I was would I be able to step into relationships in that real way again. It helped to know that some of that loneliness was to be expected, but it was still hard.

There were hurts during that time as well. Because of my changing perspective on LGBTQ issues, I was asked to step down from leadership in the mothering group that had been so life-giving to me before. And that still hurts. Even now, I get tears in my eyes thinking about it. A group of women I respected, who had respected and valued me, now looked at me differently. A church I had grown up in and felt at home with had rejected me. I felt that I was suddenly not trusted, not respected, and not valued. Some of the women in that group have made it clear to me since then that they do not feel that way, but my emotional reaction to what happened made it very hard to find community where I once had.

My family, thankfully, welcomed me back easily, but my relationship with them was a bit more distant as I allowed myself to question all the assumptions I was raised with and found myself moving down a different faith path than the one they were on. Self-discovery meant recognizing that I am not my family and they are not me and learning to be ok with that.

We also left the church we had known since childhood, which was understandably very hard. I realized very quickly how much of my socialization happened in church. We were attending a church I loved. In fact more than ever I loved being at church for the service, but I felt a bit like a stranger in the midst of these people who were so new to me. Despite being an extrovert, I have learned that I do not start conversations easily. Start a conversation with me and with very little encouragement I will reveal my deepest soul secrets, but expect me to initiate and you will hear very little from me. Plus, I feel like mothering littles on a Sunday morning greatly restricts your ability to interact with adults. And so I felt that my relationship building was very slow. It was happening, but it was also happening in what we knew was probably a short term stay in Arkansas, which meant always questioning whether friendship was worth pursuing for such a short time.

I did have a little village there though. There was a small group we met with weekly for a time. People who were also looking for friends to truly live with. And my husband and I entered what I consider the best part of our married life thus far. We were closer, more honest, open and vulnerable with each, than we ever had been. And as a result we truly enjoyed each other’s company. We still dreamt, though the dreams were all over the place, so the plans were fuzzy and incomplete.

Eventually, we left Arkansas to go to Virginia. I was supportive of my husband’s desire to pursue an MDiv and possibly ordination. I believed in him and so supported our move even in the midst of uncertainty of how I fit into all of it. I didn’t want to lose myself after having finally found it. Ironically what met us here in Virginia was a life seemingly all set up and ready for me and the kids, and disappointment, disillusionment, and depression for my husband. We had moved for him and everyone was thriving except for him. I had no idea what we were supposed to do now.

About halfway through our first year here he received a diagnosis of major depression, and suddenly a lot of the last few years made a lot more sense to me. The diagnosis was good because now we can focus on treatment. But it was hard too, because ever since that moment I think I have struggled to see my husband as something separate from the depression. Every conversation, every interaction seems to be tainted by it. The happy, unbelievable, and unexpected almost honeymoon period of the year before has been replaced by a constant internal swing in me between deep raw emotion and terrible numbness. I’ve learned to live in the present. I’ve learned to be strong. But I am sometimes very sad, and my loneliness right now not only has to do with the fact that I have very little energy to put into finding a village here, but also because I feel like I’m living a life parallel to my husband, but not WITH. Loving work, hobbies, children, life while my husband just survives beside me. It is the oddest juxtaposition I’ve ever experienced. To be so joyful in my daily life, while simultaneously feeling deep sadness at the fact that my husband is not able to share in that joy. He supports me in it, but he doesn’t feel it for himself.

And so loneliness is becoming a close friend these days. I do still believe that a village can be found everywhere, no matter what the circumstances. But sometimes it does take finding, and I’m not always sure I have the energy to pursue it. I sometimes wish it would just find me.

The gift of mystery.

kidswarmemorialIt’s interesting how much of my parenting is shaped by my experiences as a child. I struggled a lot with doubt, questions, and guilt as a child. I wanted to know the truth and rest in it, but was frustrated that my mind did not always cooperate, that I was plagued always by questions instead of certainty. It took a long time for me to accept the questions as part of my experience. And it took even longer for me to see the value of uncertainty. And because I never want my children to feel guilty for asking questions, I tend to encourage those questions.

Even before my recent faith shift away from evangelicalism towards a more progressive form of Christianity, I didn’t like to answer my kids questions with too much certainty. For one thing, I recognized that I am never sure enough myself to give them a definitive answer and for another thing, I wanted them to be ok with knowing that there were multiple answers to any one question. So when asked about science, faith, and life, I would often answer them with: “Well, some people believe a, others think b, and I tend to agree most with c.”

As I become more and more comfortable with my own questions, I have been able to be even more relaxed about theirs. I think when Elise was young, there were definitely some questions I felt that she needed a very clear answer to. If she asked about God or Jesus or salvation, then I was definitely going to give her the black and white answer I believed was necessary for salvation, even while at the same time feeling anxious over my own lack of certainty. Since my understanding of salvation has completely moved away from assertion of facts, I no longer mind allowing uncertainty in even those things that I once considered the essentials of faith.

Kids have a lot of questions, even while accepting the oddest things as truth. But Elise has always been incredibly tied to reality. She hates uncertainty and even in the course of imaginative play always wanted to know where the line of reality was. It frustrated her to no end a few years ago when Will was convinced that his stuffed animals were alive. He would not admit that he was just pretending, but stubbornly resisted her every attempt to teach him the truth. She would get so angry about this that she would try to bring me into the argument. “Mom!” she would say, “Will you please tell him that stuffed animals are NOT alive!” And I would never step in. This was more about Elise than it was about Will. I truly didn’t care if he believed his animals were real. Possibly, deep down, he knew they weren’t, but liked to rile up Elise. But I wanted Elise to be ok with letting go of control over the minds of those around her. I wanted her to be ok with uncertainty.

As the kids have gotten older, the dynamics have changed. Both Will and Seth love to believe the impossible. Or pretend that they do. I can’t always tell where the line is in their play, and that is ok. They like to live on the edge of mystery. But they don’t always like to allow the other to be comfortable there. Sibling dynamics are such that there will be teasing surrounding each one’s chosen fantasy. Will also likes to try to convince Seth of fantastical creatures’ existence because Seth so wants to believe, even when his logical side tells him this probably isn’t true. You can hear the struggle in his voice as he argues back. “That isn’t real, Will! Is it?”

The other day Will was giving Seth a hard time about Santa Claus. Seth has tried to believe in Santa Claus for years, even though we have never really “done” Santa Claus in our house. This has actually been one of those areas where my child has taught me to let go of controlling what another person believes, and now I only really step in when the naughty or nice part comes up, but that I addressed in another blog post. (If you read that blog post you’ll probably notice my lack of an emphasis on mystery in celebration. I have definitely evolved since then.)

But back to the conversation of a few weeks ago. Will asked, partly in seriousness, and partly to annoy his brother, who was sitting next to him: “Why do people believe in things that aren’t true, like Santa Claus?” “That’s a good question, Will,” I answered resorting to my tried and true parenting tactic of answering a question with a question. “Why do YOU think that people believe in things?” “Because they’re dumb?” Will answered (actually I can’t remember his exact reply, but this is most likely what he was thinking even if he didn’t say it out loud.)

Wanting to encourage Will towards self-reflection rather than attack, we brought up one of Will’s favorite fantasies. Against all evidence and in the face of opposition all around him, Will believes in dragons. So of course we brought that up. And in comparing Santa Claus and dragons (who knew those would ever come up in the same conversation?) we were able to actually ask some meaningful questions about the nature of belief.

sethtreeI don’t know if that conversation was marinating in my kids’ heads at all over the next few weeks, but I think maybe it was. Because on the way home from church a few days ago Seth asked a very serious question: “Why do people believe in God? I mean you can’t see him, we don’t know if he’s actually real. He might be or he might not be. It’s a mystery.” And rather than going into panic mode, wondering about the state of my child’s soul, I merely said: “Yep, life is full of mystery.”

My thoughts on guns, violence and racism.

My heart has been heavy the last couple of days. I took some time to read about the most recent police shootings (both those by the police and the attack on the police). It’s hard to read, to listen, and to think about these things. I would much rather continue living my life as if these things were not happening in my nation. I choose silence so often when it comes to hard things. But these things that are happening in my world also intersect with my own life, things in my own household, worrying things that my silence only allows to continue.

I wish that it was a simple matter of not spreading words of hate and prejudice and violence to my kids. I wish that I could remain in silence and that they would just naturally fall into the way of love. But it doesn’t happen that way. The culture we live in is steeped in violence. The messages they receive, even if they aren’t purposefully so, are filled with us vs. them ideology. The movies they watch, the stories they hear, the toys they use all come from a system of heroism based on violence, on good guys vs. bad guys. I see it in their play, I hear it in their words. I never purposefully taught my kids these concepts, and yet they are so obviously there, ingrained in their minds. When my son comes home from school saying that he doesn’t want to play with a certain kid because his skin is brown, I know that racism still exists. I know that it isn’t enough to NOT teach racism, but that I also must actively counteract it. When my kids continue to put guns into their play even when we’ve strongly discouraged it, I realize that it isn’t enough to remove the guns, but that we have to replace it with something else.

I realize that some of the issue stems from me, as the parent. I realize that until recently I used corporal punishment in my home, believing the popular opinion that this was an effective and non-harmful mode of discipline. My choice to use violence to try to control my children ingrained in them the habit of responding to frustration, hurt, and violence done to them with more violence. It accomplished nothing positive in our household, and I strongly believe it added to the violence that is often present in their disagreements. When the kids were younger I was conflicted about the use of guns in play. But it seemed liked everyone told me that it didn’t matter if they had guns or not, it was just ingrained in males to use weapons and that they would just make a stick into a gun. So what was the big deal? Though I do believe that violence is ingrained in our human consciousness, I no longer believe we should just accept that and live with it. I believe that we need to counteract this. I believe that the glorification of violence often comes from our culture, not from our soul. I believe that we can learn a different way, a way of peace, the way of Christ.

But it is hard. As I have started to pay attention to the influences on my kids’ lives (and on mine), I realize how pervasive this ideology of violence is. The movies I loved to watch as a kid and am excited to share with my kids almost all teach this idea. It is subtle sometimes, but it is almost always there. I use to say it was ok, because the movies were just portraying this battle between good and evil. But is it beneficial when the “good” is represented by a small band of people who have to use violence to survive, and the “bad” are represented by another usually larger group of people whose choices have made them in some way irredeemable? We learn from these stories that violence is ok if it is aimed at the “bad guys.” But life isn’t that simple. The world is not divided into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Everyone thinks they are the good guy and everyone makes both right and wrong choices. “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us,” to quote J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

I’ve started to try to explain this to my kids. I had started a conversation with one of my boys a few days ago about guns. We’ve really tried to explain to my kids the dangers of guns, but in their minds it really only applied to real guns, something to worry about when they are older. In an attempt to broaden their understanding a little, I shared with one of them about the danger of having a pretend gun that is mistaken for a real gun. The danger of them being shot because someone, even a police officer, might mistake the gun they carried as a threat. The only thing this really seemed to accomplish though was fill my son with fear. I really don’t want him to be afraid of police officers, but I also want to be honest with my kids, to help them understand that everyone is capable of making a choice that harms others. As I tucked my son into bed and tried to assure him that the scenario I shared with him was unlikely to happen to him, I stopped short of adding in the race issue. I knew that because he is white, there is a much less likely chance that it would happen to him, but I didn’t say that. I’m not sure why I didn’t say it, I think part of me felt that it was wrong to give him assurance in this way since it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that I don’t really have to worry about that happening to him while other parents legitimately do need to worry about it only because their children have a different color skin.

But then yesterday I realized that I need to share that part of the story with my kids. Not because I want them to be reassured, but because it ISN’T fair. And they need to know it isn’t fair. They need to see the injustice of it, so that they can choose a different way in their interactions with those around them. And so I told them. I told them about the things that have been happening, and the troubling number of black people who have been shot by white policemen. And rather than relief my son’s eyes were again filled with fear, but this time the fear was for others. He has friends who are black and he has friends who are hispanic and he was scared for them.

pirate_cakeWhen I asked both my bigger boys what they thought we could do to help, they both answered immediately with: “We can pray.” And I inwardly cringed. Because this is another message that I hear from Christians all the time, and too often it is an excuse to do nothing. I do believe in prayer, don’t get me wrong. We need to pray, probably mostly because prayer changes us. We need to pray for ourselves, we need to pray for those who are hurting, we need to pray for those who have hurt, and we need to pray for those we are afraid of. I absolutely think we need to pray. But we can’t JUST pray. Prayer should spur us to action. And so I answered my boys, “Yes, we can pray, but we also need to treat everyone with respect, no matter what their skin color and we need to step in and stand up for people when they are being treated with disrespect.” And I think we possibly need to do more than that, but I’m still sorting out what that is and wrestling against my desire to take the easy way out yet again.

And so begins the hard job of retraining, both my  mind and my children’s mind. It will be a long process. The conversation I shared above was just yesterday and today as John and I sat watching and listening to the kids play on the playground we noticed that yet again they were pretending to use guns. It was ok though, because they were shooting the “bad guys,” the pirates. And so today there was another conversation about how the world is not divided into good guys and bad guys. How everyone deserves to be treated with respect. And this time instead of stopping at the negative directive: “Don’t play with guns.” I went one step further and tried to replace their story with another one. Instead of a ship captain who was going after pirates, Seth became a ship captain searching the sea for refugees in rafts that he could save. I will try to continue to fill our minds with narratives of heroes who make changes in this world without the use of violence. And hopefully in this process we will begin to notice the injustice, the violence, the inequality around us and try to change it. Hopefully we will no longer choose silence, but rather love. Love that speaks up and emboldens us to act.

 

Finding Home.

We’ve been in Alexandria now for 2 weeks. As John has mentioned a couple times, the next three years will mark the longest we’ve been in one house since we sold our house in Siloam about 6 years ago. Since then we’ve moved from house to house in NWA, then to Germany and back again, and now to Alexandria.If all goes as planned, we’ll be in Alexandria longer than we were in Germany, even longer than we attended Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam. It seems like such a long time in many ways, yet in others, very short.

IMG_4279Knowing this sense of a possible security of place for the next three years has meant that I have looked forward to settling in, making this place our home. It means buying furniture and decorating to our taste instead of living with whatever we happen to be given. But unfortunately, we still have at least 4 months before that happens. Right now we are house-sitting for fellow seminarians who are gone for the summer. We are so so thankful for the provision of their house. We love living here, but it does mean that most of our stuff sits in storage waiting for us to have our own space to put it. At the beginning of August we will move on campus. But because the family housing won’t be completed by then, we will be put in some sort of temporary housing until Fall break, when they hope the apartments will be done and everyone can move into their own place. So again, we will make do, live temporarily, get by without settling in.

IMG_4261We should be good at living this way by  now, but I feel like what happens, what has been happening for the last several years, is that we never truly live life the way we want because it is too easy to say: “We’ll make those changes, live the way we want to once we are in our own place.” When living in constant transition, you end up putting off lots of important things because it is easier. Perhaps this unexpected change in plans is a chance for me to practice living the way I want no matter how stable I feel. After all, even the 3 years in seminary is still a transitionary phase. If I want to live intentionally this 3 years, why do I feel I have to wait until my house is semi-permanent? That may be helpful, but I think perhaps I’m just making excuses if I can’t start making some changes now.

At the same time though, I want to give myself and my family lots of grace. Not only are we living in a temporary physical home, we are learning a new balance of work and living. We have never before had a time when I was working as much as I am now. We have never before had to figure out how to balance running the household to the extent we are now. When I get frustrated about how it’s going, John reminds me that it has only been 2 weeks. “This will take time to figure out,” he says. And he’s right.

In general it is going well, my main frustrations focus around the grief of letting go. Despite the fact that there are lot of household care things that I don’t enjoy and gladly would share with John, there are others that I have grown accustomed to being in charge of and that I am struggling to let go. The biggest of those being cooking, grocery shopping, and planning meals. I still do some, but I’m not home for several meals each week, so we are trying to figure out how to work it out with two of us shopping, two of us making meals, and two of us trying to live within a single budget. And of course it is all complicated by trying to learn to shop in an area with a much higher cost of living than Siloam Springs. What it will come down to is lots of communication. And some of those conversations will be hard, because if John and I have one thing we tend to “fight” over, it is meal planning. I know, that comes as a surprise, doesn’t it? But it’s an emotional area for both of us and we have different ideas of how to approach things.

So, I have come to the conclusion that this time of temporary housing will be a time of exploring what I want home to look like. I will take the time I would have been using to set up my house to explore my new place in my family, to sort out the balance of house management, to think through what living intentionally looks like, and to process a few of the parenting and lifestyle things John and I have been working towards changing. In short, I will take this time to set up our real home, the home that moves with us no matter where we go.